Walter Benjamin on "A Matter of Habit" (was Re: Carol on Durkheim)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Wed Dec 27 14:00:01 MST 2000

George Snedeker wrote:

>my question about what would replace religion under socialism was poorly
>stated. I meant what would replace the formation and maintenance of
>collective identity and the role of the transcendental moral signifier that
>Durkheim attributed to religion? it is not enough to say that relations
>between people and between people and nature will be clear under socialism.
>how will they get so clear. it is true that what we commonly call religion
>is a limited historical phenomena.Old Emile tended to see it as a universal
>problem.  I am not arguing that Durkheim was correct, only that the question
>I drew from him is of interest.

I like Walter Benjamin's answer to the question: in place of an aura
that surrounded the work of art in the spiritual age, we'll have a
matter of _habit_....

*****   When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of
production, this mode was in its infancy.  Marx directed his efforts
in such a way as to give them prognostic value.  He went back to the
basic conditions underlying capitalistic production and through his
presentation showed what could be expected of capitalism in the
future.  The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit
the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create
conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.

The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more
slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a
century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the
conditions of production.  Only today can it be indicated what form
this has taken.  Certain prognostic requirements should be met by
these statements.  However, theses about the art of the proletariat
after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society
would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the
developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of
production.  Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the
superstructure than in the economy.  It would therefore be wrong to
underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon.  They brush aside
a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal
value and mystery -- concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present
almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data
in the Fascist sense.  The concepts which are introduced into the
theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in
that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.  They
are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary
demands in the politics of art....

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one
element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the
place where it happens to be....The presence of the original is the
prerequisite to the concept of authenticity....  [Yoshie: Recall that
Benjamin -- as well as Adorno & Horkheimer -- fought against the
fascist & Heideggerian "jargon of authenticity."...]

...The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction
can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality
of its presence is always depreciated.  This holds not only for the
art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in
review before the spectator in a movie.  In the case of the art
object, a most sensitive nucleus -- namely, its authenticity -- is
interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that
score.  The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is
transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive
duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former,
too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases
to matter.  And what is really jeopardized when the historical
testimony is affected is the authority of the object.[3]  One might
subsume the eliminated element in the term "aura" and go on to say:
that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura
of the work of art.  This is a symptomatic process whose significance
points beyond the realm of art.  One might generalize by saying: the
technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the
domain of tradition.  By making many reproductions it substitutes a
plurality of copies for a unique existence.  And in permitting the
reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular
situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.  These two processes
lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of
the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.  Both processes are
intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements.  Their
most powerful agent is the film.  Its social significance,
particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its
destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the
traditional value of the cultural heritage....  [Yoshie: In his
positive evaluation of the destruction of "aura" & the shattering of
tradition effected by mass culture & (re)production, Benjamin
decisively differs from Adorno & Horkheimer....]

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception
changes with humanity's entire mode of existence.  The manner in
which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is
accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical
circumstances as well....

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being
imbedded in the fabric of tradition.  This tradition itself is
thoroughly alive and extremely changeable....Originally the
contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in
the cult.  We know that the earliest art works originated in the
service of a ritual -- first the magical, then the religious kind.
It is significant that the existence of the work of art with
reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual
function.[5]  In other words, the unique value of the "authentic"
work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use
value.  This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable
as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do
justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important
insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction
emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on
ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes
the work of art designed for reproducibility.[7]  From a photographic
negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for
the "authentic" print makes no sense.  But the instant the criterion
of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the
total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual,
it begins to be based on another practice -- politics.

... Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses
toward art.  The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting
changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie.  The
progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion
of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.
Such fusion is of great social significance.  The greater the
decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the
distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.  The
conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized
with aversion.  With regard to the screen the critical and the
receptive attitudes of the public coincide.  The decisive reason for
this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass
audience response they are about to produce, and this is nowhere more
pronounced than in the film.  The moment these responses become
manifest they control each other.  Again, the comparison with
painting is fruitful.  A painting has always had an excellent chance
to be viewed by one person or by a few....

...One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a
demand which could be fully satisfied only later.[17]...Every
fundamentally new, pioneering creation of demands will carry beyond
its goal....

... The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward
works of art issues today in a new form.  Quantity has been
transmuted into quality.  The greatly increased mass of participants
has produced a change in the mode of participation.  The fact that
the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form
must not confuse the spectator.  Yet some people have launched
spirited attacks against precisely this superficial aspect.  Among
these, Duhamel has expressed himself in the most radical manner.
What he objects to most is the kind of participation which the movie
elicits from the masses.  Duhamel calls the movie "a pastime for
helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who
are consumed by their worries..., a spectacle which requires no
concentration and presupposes no intelligence..., which kindles no
light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one
of someday becoming a 'star' in Los Angeles." (Duhamel, op. cit., p.
58.)  Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the
masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the
spectator.  That is a commonplace.  The question remains whether it
provides a platform for the analysis of the film.  A closer look is
needed here.  _Distraction and concentration form polar opposites
which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work
of art is absorbed by it.  He enters into this work of art the way
legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished
painting.  In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art_.
This is most obvious with regard to buildings.  Architecture has
always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of
which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.
The laws of its reception are most instructive.

Buildings have been man's companions since primeval times.  Many art
forms have developed and perished.  Tragedy begins with the Greeks,
is extinguished with them, and after centuries its "rules" only are
revived.  The epic poem, which had its origin in the youth of
nations, expires in Europe at the end of the Renaissance.  Panel
painting is a creation of the Middle Ages, and nothing guarantees its
uninterrupted existence.  But the human need for shelter is lasting.
Architecture has never been idle.  Its history is more ancient than
that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has
significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the
masses to art.  Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by
use and by perception -- or rather, by touch and sight.  Such
appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive
concentration of a tourist before a famous building.  On the tactile
side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.
Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by
habit.  As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent
even optical reception.  The latter, too, occurs much less through
rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion.
This mode of appropriation, developed with reference to architecture,
in certain circumstances acquires canonical value.  _For the tasks
which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of
history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation,
alone.  They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of
tactile appropriation_.

_The distracted person, too, can form habits.  More, the ability to
master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their
solution has become a matter of habit_.  Distraction as provided by
art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have
become soluble by apperception.  Since, moreover, individuals are
tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and
most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.  Today
it does so in the film.  Reception in a state of distraction, which
is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of
profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of
exercise.  The film with its shock effect meets this mode of
reception halfway.  The film makes the cult value recede into the
background not only by putting the public in the position of the
critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position
requires no attention.  The public is an examiner, but an
absent-minded one....

(emphasis mine, endnotes omitted, Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," _Illuminations_, at


"_The distracted person, too, can form habits.  More, the ability to
master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their
solution has become a matter of habit_."  Here's an answer to the
question of "the formation and maintenance of collective identity"....


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